Eskimos the People of the Far North
The cleverest hunters in the world are found in North America. They call themselves “Inuit”, meaning “the people”, but the outside world calls them Eskimos. They were the first native people seen on the American continent by the white man. When the Norsemen (ancient Norwegians) came to Greenland nearly 1,000 years ago, they found Eskimos already there. The Norsemen thought the Eskimos were witches because of their strange actions and appearance. The Eskimos probably had the same opinion of the blond and bearded Norsemen.
A strange thing about the Eskimo people is that they are the only ones who have lived in their own homeland. Different people have come and gone in almost all other parts of the world. For example, Indians once lived throughout the eastern United States. Today there are almost no Indians in the east except on a few reservations. But the Eskimos came to a land largely empty of human beings, and they are still the only people in part of the Far North.
The oldest Eskimo remains have been found along the western coast of Alaska. These earliest Eskimos lived on the shores of the Bering Sea. Those who lived there 5,000 years ago were already good hunters. They followed game animals and gradually spread out into the open land around them. Hunting was best along the coast, so most Eskimos stayed near the sea. It took them over 1,000 years to get to Greenland. Greenland is 3,000 miles from the Bering Sea in a straight line and at least twice that far if you follow the coast.
No one really knows where the Eskimos lived before they got to Alaska. It is possible that they once lived in China and were driven north along the coast of Siberia. Then they moved east across the Bering Street. Those who now live in the corner of Siberia may be descendants of a little group of Eskimos who never reached Alaska.
All Eskimos live most of their lives close to salt or fresh water. Eskimo land has a bare look. Large rocks, pebbles and sand cover much of the surface. Plants called lichen grow on rock. Where there is enough soil, grass, flowers and low plants manage to live. No trees can grow in Eskimo land. Some animals, such as rabbits and caribou (reindeer), eat the plants. Others like the white fox and grey wolf, eats the rabbit and caribou. The Eskimo is a meat-eater, too, and may even eat a wolf when food is scarce.
The Eskimo year has two main parts: along, cold winter and a short, cool summer. Summer is the good time, when food is usually plentiful. But it is also the time when the Eskimo people are busiest. The men must bring home extra meat for the women to prepare and store. For seldom can enough animals be killed in winter to feed the whole family.
The Far North is sometimes called the land of the midnight sun. This is true in the middle of summer, for between April 21st and August 21st the sun never sets in northern Greenland. But in mid-winter the Far North is a land with no sun at all. During the last ten days Northern Greenland see the sun setting straight south of them, and they don’t see it again until February 22nd.
Winter nights in northern polar region are seldom very dark. As in the rest of the world, the stars and moon provide a little light. The northern lights also help the Eskimo to see. With the ground covered with snow, even a little light is reflected back to the Eskimo’s eyes.
The Eskimos have to keep busy most of the time in order to stay alive. Neither men nor women can afford to make many mistakes, because there is often no time or chance to correct them. Eskimo boys begin to practice with small bows and arrows almost as soon as they can walk. Eskimo girls learn how to do women’s work by helping their mothers.
Eskimos are the cleverest of hunters because they take hunting very seriously. They carefully study the habits of all types of game. A hunter is always alert, and nothing can turn him back once he gets on trail of game. While waiting for a seal near a hole in the ice, a hunter will sit for hours without moving. He will wait till the seal’s head is popped out of the hole and then throw his harpoon at the seal.
Every bit of the meat that is possibly edible is eaten by the Eskimos or their dogs. Much is eaten raw, and only tough meat is cooked by boiling. Bones and teeth are mare into tools. Some fat is melted down into oil. Skins are made into clothes, boat coverings, or tents.
The Eskimo religion is concerned mostly with the problems of their hard life. They appeal to their gods for good hunting, for fine weather, and to cure people who are sick. Religious leaders beat small drums, sing and dance to get attention from their gods. They may roll on the floor, and speak an unknown language. The people watching believe that the gods have entered the bodies of their regions’ leaders.